The first time I watched porn, I was 18 and sitting in the common room of Scales House on the Smith College campus. A house-wide email had informed me of this tradition—“porn and pizza”—so there I was with my newly-minted best friend, trying to appear blasé. After some discussion among the more established members of the house, a senior popped in a DVD featuring hot girl-on-girl action. One woman wore glossy black latex gloves and had fingernails like stilettos. The other perched on the rim of a bathtub, legs spread. I felt my cheeks getting hotter and hotter.
When Sinn Sage, an AVN award-winning porn performer and sex educator, started working in the adult film industry in 2003, she mostly booked shoots for DVDs like the one that flustered me. But by the time I was watching that DVD in 2008, things were different. “Tube sites, torrents, and streaming, all that has drastically changed the business model for anyone in porn,” Sage tells SELF. Basically, it became very easy for casual porn viewers to watch what they wanted, when they wanted, for exactly zero dollars.
Sage and other performers used to earn the bulk of their income from shoots with production companies, but with rates dropping and shoots becoming less and less frequent, she now also shoots and sells her own content, including custom videos tailor-made to buyers’ requests. “Now you have to be the product you’re selling,” she says. Feeling a personal connection can be the factor that convinces someone to pay for one of your videos, rather than pirating it.
“It’s understandable why people have expectations that adult entertainment should be free,” Kit Murray Maloney, founder and head curator of O’actually, a multimedia platform dedicated to celebrating women’s pleasure, tells SELF. O’actually is in beta mode at the moment, but eventually, they’ll introduce fee-based memberships that place most of their offerings behind a paywall. “We’re willing to exchange money for other kinds of entertainment, and sexual entertainment should be the same,” she says.
Paying for porn is better for both the people watching it and the people making it.
Maloney’s is both a business case and a personal plea: It’s worth paying for the material on her site to be “guided to porn in a way that’s fun, playful, and empowering.” Not only will you get to avoid the endless stream of pop-up advertisements (hot babes near you are looking for an older man!) and urgent flash player updates that you should definitely not download now, but you’ll also get to peruse a beautifully-designed site with witty, tempting video descriptions, helpful reviews from other viewers, and genuinely alluring video stills.
I won’t lie, I’ve watched porn for free before. I also understand that having money to spend on entertainment of any kind is a luxury. But here’s why I think the choice to pay for the porn you watch matters more than whether you pony up for an HBO subscription or search for a bootleg version of the latest release: The people who create porn are already marginalized by the work they do, making it that much harder for them to get paid fairly for their labor in the first place.
It’s also harder for creators of adult content to enforce copyright. “I recently read a case saying that they didn’t want to go after people who illegally downloaded porn because it would be humiliating for those people,” Lorelei Lee, an adult film performer and writer, tells SELF. Insert facepalm emoji here.
The stigma around watching porn can be especially oppressive for women. A recent study of 24,000 women who watched content on one of the largest adult video sites found that 54 percent don’t talk to their friends about their porn consumption, and 51 percent would be ashamed if their friends knew they were into it. Maloney believes a lot of our hang-ups around porn stem from the fact that we blur the lines between what it is—fantasy fodder designed to stimulate arousal—and what it isn’t—your actual sexual reality.
My taste in porn tends toward two general types, which sometimes, delightfully, overlap: pretty and raw. I like artful lighting, carefully-framed shots, and lingering close-ups of mouths. I also like porn that feels spontaneous and orgasms I can believe in.
The kind of visceral, compelling performances and high-end production values I go for cost money. “I’m creating what I consider an art form. Sometimes, I might be creating a performance of orgasm that I value. Sometimes, we’re not being paid enough for authenticity,” Lee tells SELF.
When it comes to selecting content for O’actually, Maloney does place an emphasis on representing what pleasure really looks like. She wants to capture “the plurality of authentic female orgasms,” something that’s underrepresented in adult entertainment. Or, really, in mainstream entertainment as a whole. “Women can start to feel their orgasms aren’t big enough, loud enough, or quick enough. I’m trying to challenge that,” Maloney says. She’s also showcasing performers of all body types, ethnicities, races, and ages so that viewers can see the desirability of bodies that look like theirs.
“I do my darndest to curate in a way that’s ethical and respectful,” she says. “I get to know people behind camera, their work, the people they work with, and see if they feel like an aligned fit. Our focus is on what we want to create and have more of—pleasure, with less shame and guilt attached.”
I’m excited by the content Maloney has curated so far, including videos directed by Erika Lust, one of a growing number of filmmakers creating “ethical” or “feminist” porn. These directors and producers focus on fair wage and labor practices for their performers, and high production value. They often are women and employ more women than you’d typically find working behind the scenes.
But both Lee and Sage warn that a film being marketed as feminist or ethical offers no guarantee the content you’re watching was created in a fair and respectful manner. If you want to invest in porn that prioritizes the treatment of the performers appearing in it, Lee suggests seeking out content that’s produced or directed by someone who has worked as a performer. While this can take a little research, or preexisting knowledge of the industry, a helpful shortcut is to see whether any of the performers featured in the video also had a hand in its creation.
“Just making the choice as a woman to perform in porn and to put your heart into it, that’s a feminist statement, period,” says Sage. While she’s dubious about the value labels hold, she has found that working on indie, queer porn sets or shooting custom videos with friends allows for more freedom. “Those are the places where I can be the most safe, secure, and creative.”
When you support the work of porn producers who prioritize the physical, emotional, and financial health of the performers they work with, you make it more viable for other producers to do the same.
These five companies have all been described by performers as ethical and all create the kind of conceptually intriguing, visually stimulating (and not just because the performers are hot) kind of content I go for: PinkLabel TV, TrenchcoatX, Kink.com, Trouble Films, and Burning Angel. Three of the five—TrenchcoatX, Trouble Films, and Burning Angel—are helmed by performers. Other carefully vetted options about on the O’actually site, helpfully organized into categories like “Female Filmmakers,” “Glamour Porn,” and “Real World Sex.”
It’s absolutely worthwhile to put time and thought into finding porn you can feel good about getting off to, and supporting ethical practices by paying for porn from producers who treat and pay their performers fairly. But that won’t radically alter the porn industry as we know it. Better labor conditions for porn performers, Lee says, depend on reducing the stigma associated with sex work. A simple, meaningful, completely free way you can do that? Talk about the fact that you watch porn.